Healthy preseason done, now bring on the Steelers

From The Sidelines

August 29, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The best way to judge the exhibition season is to check the injury report.

By that criteria, the Ravens' practice season was a smashing success.

They got out of it with only one potential starter, guard Sale Isaia, lost for the season.

That's much more important than the 4-0 record they completed with a boring 14-6 victory over the New York Giants last night.

This one was even more meaningless than most exhibition games because the starters played barely more than a quarter and the two teams were scoreless in the first half. The fans were more entertained by a squirrel who eluded an attendant with a net than they were by any of the players.

But the key to any exhibition game -- particularly the last one -- is simply staying healthy. Nobody knows better than coach Ted Marchibroda how crippling a final exhibition game can be. Remember when he lost Bert Jones in Detroit in 1978?

Because the Ravens got through the exhibition season without any devastating injuries, it means they will go into the regular-season opener on Sept. 6 at their new stadium at Camden Yards with the team they put together in the off-season.

The unanswered question is, how good is that team?

That question can't be answered until next Sunday when they line up against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The conventional wisdom around the league is that they're the Same Old Ravens. Both Sports Illustrated and Sport magazine picked them to go 4-12. The Ravens think they're playoff contenders.

"We tend to believe we're a better football team than what we initially thought," Marchibroda said.

Now they've got to prove it. That's why the test against the Steelers will mean so much.

It might be better to open with a team like Chicago, the way they did in the exhibition season, so they would be virtually guaranteed of celebrating the regular-season debut of the new stadium with a victory.

On the other hand, a game against the Steelers will give the Ravens a chance to prove that they're as good as they think they are. And if you have to play the Steelers, it might as well be in the opener. Openers are not coach Bill Cowher's forte. The Steelers have lost four of their five openers under his tutelage.

This game is so big that commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the man who suggested Baltimore use its stadium money to build a museum, is scheduled to show up. Maybe Maryland Stadium Authority head John Moag can give him one of those T-shirts that shows the new stadium and calls it Baltimore's Museum.

In the opener, the Ravens will get a chance to pit their newly designed offense, which hasn't shown the power-running game that is supposed to be their signature this year, against a top-notch defense. Their defense, which looked so good in the exhibition season, will get a chance to show if it can keep up the same tempo when the games count.

At least the games will count starting next week, and all the questions will be answered.

Highlights and lowlights of the final preseason game:

Running game: The Ravens' power-running game suffered from another power outage. Jay Graham, who's supposed to be the starting running back, managed just 0.3 yards a carry with two yards in eight carries. Errict Rhett, who ran 23 yards for a touchdown in the third period, outplayed Graham in the exhibition season, but Marchibroda said he's sticking with Graham as his starter. He said it wasn't Graham's fault because he didn't get much blocking.

Struggling: Offensive linemen complain they never get noticed except when they make a mistake. Well, Orlando Brown, coming off a poor game against the Eagles, made three of them while trying to block Michael Strahan. He was guilty of two holding calls and an illegal-formation call. Marchibroda blamed the short work week for the shaky line play and said the team will run the ball well against the Steelers.

Daring: Jim Harbaugh scrambled only once, gaining nine yards. But when he broke into the open field, he didn't take a slide and was tackled. Harbaugh plays with a gung-ho style, but it's not a good idea to risk an injury. Harbaugh produced no points, and while he said he didn't want to use it as an excuse, he noted the team had a short work week after a Monday night game and worked last week on plays they haven't used in the exhibition season but will use against the Steelers.

Punting duel: Marchibroda said he's decided which punter he'll use in the regular season but won't announce his decision until next week. Because incumbent Greg Montgomery averaged 46 yards on three punts and dropped one on the 4-yard line, the betting is he'll get the edge over Kyle Richardson, although Richardson also kicked well.

Poor throw: Wally Richardson, who was yanked after one half in his World League debut, cost the Ravens a field goal when he fired a third-down interception right into the arms of Percy Ellsworth in the end zone in the fourth period. That's the kind of mistakes third-string quarterbacks make.

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